Where did comics go wrong?
– The decline of the storytelling comics
Reflections by Freddy Milton
This article was inspired by contributions in our local magazine on comics where a reviewer wondered why the prices on comic albums had skyrocketed. That was followed by an article of a leading editor at one of our publishing houses who explained why things had developed like that. He also put the question why other media such as film and literature seemed to have come through the crises better than comics.
I myself have worked with comics all of my life. A passion you might say. To dream up stories has always appealed to me and I have executed that urge no matter what. With a certain parallel you could have me put it like Robert Mitchum did when receiving an award. ‘I’m not much of an actor, and I’ve got seventy films to prove it’.
So that’s why this development bugs me. That particular point of the status of the different art forms set me off thinking and the result came to be the following analysis. The situation referred to is the publishing of epic comic albums in Scandinavia during later years. It might not cover the situation in other countries though some of the points I make are valid even outside Scandinavia.
This article was written on the last day of 2010, being an obvious time for reflection. On TV we see political incidents of the year in retrospect with comments and analysis and we are presented with highlights from the world of sports with striking ball play being repeated in slow motion. Slow motion is okay as long as the picture does not come to a complete standstill, in which case the public gets frantic. The picture’s gotta move, even if it is not all that ‘moving’ in the first place…
A question raised by the comics editor was that other art forms such as films and books traditionally represented a higher level of cultural status, but why is that so? There is no law of nature saying that one way of expression is better and finer than other ones? But of course it ends up with the subject matter that particular way of expression is used for.
That films handle the transition to a new world order with moving pictures on a screen is no big surprise. The silver screen in the cinema has just been changed into a digital screen, but what about literature?
I have written books myself lately and I have noticed that the absence of well defined pictures can be an advantage. The pictures you create yourself in your mind can be stronger than the pictures the comics artist has decided to present to the innocent reader. You are more a part of the creative process when you yourself imagine things. And in books you can describe reality as is the case in films where it’s customary that it is actual human beings running around playing humans.
Even the realistically drawn comic is never quite realistic. There is always an element of caricature present coming from the graphic style of the artist. This should mark the comics as something original and unique and so it is.
But caricature has always had a low status culturally just like comedy has never been as well accepted as high drama and tragedy, a tradition that is hard to overcome. But the art of film can be accepted when exaggerating things. It’s more of a problem with books. It’s not with comedies literature has won its acceptance. It’s on the realistic and reflective human descriptions. The strength of literature has always lied in thoughts and reflections of mind, and you have all the room you want. You can use all the letters you need for that purpose.
Ironically in comics you find the most powerful expressiveness within epic storytelling using a design and styling, where the characters are not even humans. Many a reader will probably agree with me that no one have managed to present a more varied and stronger range of emotions than Carl Barks did using funny animal characters. In his best moments the full potential of epic comics really came out to its best advantage, and here comics managed to clearly surpass in depth of emotions its predecessor within animated films.
What has thrilled me and still thrills me in epic comics are the many folded designs in the graphic style. Certainly a major part of the stories are no better or any different from much of things you have seen within TV series or film genres over the years. Yet at its best they have the obvious advantage of a personal graphic design. In opposition to the collective art forms as films and theatre, comics are the efforts of one or a few persons working closely together on scripts and art. Here you have the potential that you also see within literature, the original and personal presentation of a distinct style and design.
When I browse through old comic books I clearly understand why many of them did not stand the test of time. They are really in every respect pulp publications both in contents, design and physical presentation. But then again they were only meant as cheap fulfillment of a need for escapism and the surplus printed copies were hauled into the paper mill, so the costs of publishing had to be as low as possible. The low cover price was a necessity. Among the many explanations on the decline of the epic comic one should not underrate the cover price. If a comic book or album costs dearly today and it still just takes half an hour to read, only the fanatics keep up. Especially if the story matter only repeats the old fashioned structures, that you earlier could obtain for a much lower price within the same or similar series. This mechanism of repetition can hold as long as the price is low, but not as it has become today.
In the good old days there were also many continued adventure stories in the daily newspapers. People were satisfied by getting only one strip at a time, and they remembered the storyline till the following day. In weekly magazines or supplements something similar was going on. Excellent artists handled these stories, and were they not all great artists they were at least brilliant craftsmen. So the storytelling comics definitely had a public, a mass audience even. Now there are no more continued adventure strips in the newspapers, and that is easy to understand. Today readers want the story all at once.
It is hard to admit it, but for a major part of the consumers original graphics in a comic is not all that important. The major thing lies is the movement. Therefore one can experience the sad and depressive fact, that what was initially a mediocre spin-off product made for TV has now grown to become the picture of the comics series that the general audience has in its mind. TVanimated versions are creatively no big deal, in particular not for those of us who hold the old comic versions in high esteem. Yet we have to admit that they were not moving pictures – though some artists like Franquin almost made them look that way…
The comics medium is a hybrid art form between film and literature. I will defend that as an advantage any day, but it might not hold regarding a wider audience. It is clear that comics borrow storytelling aspects from both media. It has the short sequences that we see in films and the panels have the same precise layout as the film frames show us. You can even vary the proportions of the panels. From literature we have the freedom of imagining the expressions within the dialogue and the nature of the sound effects. And we maintain the possibility of letting our reading experience come to a halt and think things over, a good process.
But who am I but an old comics freak who has never understood that things must move in our time, not only the persons but the backgrounds as well. The camera pans up and down and round the characters constantly so you can hardly concentrate on following the storyline, but that might not be all that important. On the contrary this frenetic movement is often used to disguise the lack of real substance in the story at hand. A lot seems to be going on but not much is actually happening, if you get my drift? The story tellers just hope the audience won’t discover the holes and lacking logic in the swiftly changing intrigue, and maybe they won’t. This could never take place in a good comics album where you can stop and think things over whenever you please.
But there is a major point where literature and to some degree films surpass the epic comic. It is concerning scope and complexity of the story. I found that out myself when making my first book ‘Questland’ instead of letting it be a comic book album like my earlier ventures. I could get room over for so many more details, angles and episodes than I could have had in a comic version. Since then I have gone further on with other kinds of books, and I must admit that I have much more alternate choices at hand using my storytelling nerve within literature. And in literature one naturally accepts more serious subject matters.
It is obvious that the size of the market also plays a major role. If the sales are on the decline one can more easily cope with it if the starting point is a large circulation. But earlier it has also been quite large in Scandinavia, actually as large as it was abroad, in relation to the number of inhabitants. Unfortunately the blooming season was short, and it did not build upon a solid foundation of a close relation to our own national culture.
I was in Sweden when the comics business was at its peak in the mid 70’es, where I worked for’ Semic Press’, the largest comics publisher in Sweden. Besides ‘Hemmets Journal’s Disney output there came a competition from multinational ‘Williams’. For a period more than 100 magazine titles were published regularly. Of course they gained shares of the market from each other but totally there were never sold as many comics as in those days. There was a similar situation in the rest of Scandinavia. But there was a setback lurking, and that had to do with a lack of innovation and a cultural foresight. Basically it was a lack of ambition and vision upon the potential and role of comics among the decision makers within the big publishing houses.
‘Semic Press’ was owned by magazine publisher ‘Åhlén & Åkerlund’ again being a division of the ‘Bonniers’ company. Large amounts of money were earned then and the same was the case of Danish ‘Gutenberghus’ owning ‘Hemmets Journal’ and handling the Disney comics all over Scandinavia. Those profits were not reinvested in development of the comics medium. Comics were looked upon only as a money machine and profits from here were reinvested in other places of the large companies having nothing to do with comics. There was a mutual understanding that it was only necessary to launch one escapist magazine after another containing material presenting adventures from places far away and written and drawn abroad and sold as cheap as possible to fill the need for escapism among the juvenile audience. It was industrialized mass products with a meager supplement of a small home production of the same kind, mostly illustrated by Spaniards from English written formula scripts.
There was a narrow minded engagement in a part of the medium where one would eventually be predestined to lose in the competition when similar mass produced TV series were taking over during the next two decades. This was no way to build a collective cultural accept of a medium. At a certain point the game is over, the public opinion is set. What a way of expression is used for will eventually in peoples mind be the things that medium will be allowed to be used for, and that was exactly what happened.
Everybody will agree upon development being the big monster in this game. It might also be the most important one. During the last 30 years we have experienced the breakthrough of home computers, internet and cell phones, on-line games, DVDs and CDs besides an overload of TV channals. Furthermore we have now smartphones that can handle everything so you can be connected even when you are away from home. There is no need to have printed telephone books, timetables, program listings, encyclopedia nor maps. All information can appear on the screen and the facts are updated.
If you choose something to fill your spare time with, comics have now come far below in the list of priorities by still more people, and if they do appear it is most likely not the storytelling comics but the humorous gag oriented comics where the punch line is not so easily outsmarted by other media offerings. The day simply has not enough time over for comics reading any longer. The time where my generation found time for comics is now taken up by something else and more appealing, no doubt something digital. Here lies the major reason for the setback of epic comics.
If you are not in some way out there on the digital screen you might as well be dead when it comes to attention. And these new platforms, as they are called, also offer interactivity. You can chat with people right after a mutual experience and you do not have to wait for the letter forum in next month’s issue of your comic book. There are message boards, where you can complain, when the on line game does not quite work, and you can yourself take part in the thrilling adventures through an avatar who can develop and be upgraded with new acquired talents and gadgets. Furthermore you can gang up with other player’s avatars on fearful quests into the unknown of a constantly expanding universe. Adventure comics will always be a one way kind of communication put into fixed settings once and for all. No wonder that people do not chose this kind of entertainment any longer.
Nowadays media moguls and producers fight bitterly about the attention of the public. The audience themselves also want to be the center of attention through some kind of reality program. And if that stardom is short lived you have at least gotten those fifteen minutes of glory that some pop artist once stated is about as much as anyone can hope for.
There is not much value in the kind of attention comics can provide. Maybe if the creator has a spectacular personality. The reason for making reviews on comics because they were regarded as a mass medium exists no longer. Now everybody knows that the comics freaks are to be compared with jazz enthusiasts and that the circulation is comparable with those of poetry.
At the bookseller there is no more room for comics on the shelves. I met French comics writer Jean van Hamme at a comics convention in Copenhagen. He admitted that there still are published many epic comics in France, but there are no chance for them to be presented in the bookshops because there simply is no more room on the shelves to display the news. That room is already taken by the well established titles of which the store keeper knows he can sell a decent amount of copies.
Oh well, soon everything will take place on the computer. More about that later.
In Europe everybody look upon France with envy. Here they still have a considerable market and it does not seem to have declined as much as in other European countries. What can be the reason for that? I think an important part of the explanation of the elements in the misery lies here.
In the French speaking world comics have always been a part of the culture. The art form has and has had national storytellers, and often they used their own background as the basis for their stories. They may still be made in caricature form, but you can see the French setting in the backgrounds, the types, the logic and the way of life reflecting French priorities and tradition. I ought to know because I have translated several hundreds of these albums over the years and I can feel it even when the element of escapism is a major part of the final presentation.
Let me mention an example illustrating this awareness of a national culture and the will to carry out the decision. In the 50’es a large French newspaper was presenting the American romantic newspaper strip ‘The heart of Juliet Jones’. However the editors thought it was a little too much American. The identification among the readers was not optimal. What happened in that series reflected an American way of life. They actually made a point out of that analysis and they decided to do something about it.
The paper hired a French storywriter and an artist, and they managed to create a series that should make up for the shortcomings of the American series, and they succeeded. For over ten years from 1959 ’13 rue de L’espoir’ was published in that newspaper and up through the 60’es you experience a reflection of the changes in European culture that the society went through during that period. Consciously there was created a connection to the society the readers were a part of, and of course this identification contributed to the feeling the French public already had, that epic comics was a thing to be respected and counted upon. This attitude still exists and is an important part of French culture.
Speaking of Scandinavia the visions and ambitions concerning comics were missing altogether. The publishers and editors from back then will claim there were no funds for it but this is not true. During the 60’es and 70’es some of the profit made on reprinting internationally aimed adventure comics could have been used to create local comics. Such additions could in the long run have created the kind of effect that this way of expression was being used in such a way that it reflected themes and points of view valid for our own culture. This could have brought the comics medium the kind of attention that could have helped it survive in the minds of people as a form of expression having comparable functions to the things we seek in literature and films. It is never the foreign books or films who carry the attention these art forms gain from nowadays, it is the local creators, storytellers and actors, who carry through interesting points of views from our own culture. These persons are simply not present when it comes to epic comics.
In theory the potential was in place. I remember excellent epic comic storytellers from the 70’es, who could have made their stand if the priorities had been different, but they never got a chance to continue such a career. The blooming season was too short. The tradition of epic comic albums came to us from abroad. It never sprang from a national tradition to get that kind of stories made for a potential public. And we never had any magazine with national comics. In France there were many publications like that all through the golden age.
Some clever guy will come up with the word ‘Graphic Novels’. That person would be correct, in principle. In a graphic book length story a creator will have the possibility to meet expectations and demands reaching further than old fashioned escapism and entertainment. In theory that is. Even in the most self centered autobiographical comics we find examples of successful storytelling where the author might have things to say that could be of some interest to a larger audience. When an author tells about himself we have no reason to doubt the good intentions. So far so good but it takes a long time to make an elaborate graphic novel, and when this guy has told us about his troubles in life, then what? There are a number of examples of that kind. A graphic artist gets his autobiographical book out, but it can never amount to a career. An artist must keep up his drawing nerve so his potential does not deteriorate.
A writer of literature can in a few months write his next novel and maybe in time establish an income, but normally a graphic artist cannot do that. And not just anyone can execute a graphic novel. You have to experience something interesting and have a way of presenting it in a form interesting enough for others to read, and normally that requires the maturity you obtain when getting older. This is contradicted by the fact that it is in your younger years you have the time over to experiment. When family obligations come knocking on your door with the need for a reasonable and secured income that period is over. Apart from that you have to be able to draw – just a little…
The time of storytelling comics as a mass medium is over. You can say ‘Manga’ as often as you like, it does not alter the general picture. Some of the old comics might survive in their motion picture counterparts or in some series on TV. Sometimes the films are quite good, but the TVseries are often of a lesser quality than the comics from which they sprung. No better or worse than other things you see these days, but then again the production is farmed out to studios in the Far East giving the material the same touch over and over again. To watch the Saturday morning programs is a venture of constant repetition.
What can make a publisher launch a new expensive album in an old series with a new set of creators? It helps if the series has been made into animation so the characters are known already from TV. There is nothing new in that. In the old days the movie serials and TV series also had their comic book spin-offs but they were cheap to buy. Now the albums are expensive but the reading experience is the same.
It is a long time since it was economically possible for Scandinavian comics artists to make their albums and get them published. Nowadays you can apply for support from art foundations but you must compete with applicants from literature and the board members all come from the field of written literature. There seems to be no loss in not having Scandinavian epic comics. Why should anyone think that you are missing anything? The medium has no history of well executed epic comics reflecting our local national culture that could give newcomers to that field some status in building a career. It is sad to realize that the days of epic comics are over in Scandinavia for the medium could have had so much more to offer if conditions had been different and it is still a rather inexpensive art form to use.
For the future digital comics artist the competition will be fierce, though. It will be difficult to gain attention to your own humble contribution when the consumer as easily can click his way to thousands of other available comics files. Yet the benefits will bigger than the shortcomings. I have already on my own homepage placed a number of my comics free for anyone to read so I am already out there in hyperspace, a necessary step not to be completely forgotten in the vast blue yonder of a digital future.
And then again, the epic comics might live on under different conditions. Digital comics have been mentioned but how does anyone pay for them making it possible for creators to make them? Will the comics reading audience accept looking upon still pictures on a screen where things are usually supposed to be moving around?
The literature people are getting used to E-books and digital tablets are being developed so that a similar comfort of a reading experience from paper can be offered, even on a sunny day on the beach. They are experimenting with a similar technique to present pages in color. Lately when making my comics album translations I have been mailed the actual French pages in digital form to work from. I must admit that I get as much artistic satisfaction seeing those pages on my computer as I do from reading a printed version, so evidently there are tempting possibilities lying around here.
As for payment that part will be taken care of since E-books are paving the way. One could imagine a kind of ‘streaming’ where the story is available for a certain period. This is a model considered for use in public libraries. In those cases where the reader would like to acquire constant access to a given comic album it will be possible to buy a digital comic on the conditions that the comic can only be read on certain number of computers or reading-gadgets. If one of these gadgets break down or is replaced the license number can be transferred to the new machine.
But what about those fanatics who want to own a digital file with their favorite comic and do with it what they please? In those cases the file will be furnished with a lock or a digital watermark so that it cannot be copied anonymously thereby securing sales via the internet in the future. In that not so distant future the publishers and the bookstores will be obsolete since it will require no middlemen to place a digital comic on a digital shelf in a digital store with a digital paying system.
That digital heaven poses new problems however. One could easily imagine that the backlog of old comics not being reprinted for economical reasons can then be scanned and made obtainable. We will then end up with a jungle of digital comics from all through the ages and it will be difficult to overlook or find things. On the other hand we already have that situation within the music industry so there is no question that this is the way to go.